24 Hours in the Past – The Workhouse

One of the great things about winter is that I am not running as much as I do in the summer. This means I have time to write….and get over the cold that Wilfred Allen gave me at the Winter Farmers’ Market last Saturday.  He did *warn* me not to hug him as he had a cold…..

So while I’m in bed with my dogs, snotting, nose blowing and whining about this cold, I started watching this series called 24 Hours in the Past. It is a small group of 21st Century people who spend 24 hours at a time in the Victorian Age. They do what 75% of the people of England did in that era – the dirty, stinking mucky industrial labour. If you watch it, you’ll understand why the average age at death was 46 years.

The fourth episode shows them landing at their lowest point after they’ve been fired for poor work performance and trying to organize labour against the industrial bosses…they end up at The Workhouse.

As most of you know, Nova Scotia’s poor farms were based on the English Work Houses that were developed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Edward Cornwallis brought the concept of these institutions with him when he arrived in Nova Scotia in 1749 from England. Punishment for Poverty was the key to workhouses and poor houses. We still carry on the idea that people are poor because of the choices they have made and, therefore, they must be punished. It is unbelievable that we are still following those beliefs 500 years later.

The episode is 59 minutes long. If you get the chance, watch it HERE.  What an eye opener!

Just one of the hundreds of Workhouses across Victorian England

Very Interesting…and Very Sad!

Just a quick blog post today. On December 30 last month, I wrote a blog post which I entitled Halifax’s Dirty Little Secret  about the poor house inmates buried on a site of land in Halifax that Big Business developers want to build on. It had a hundreds of views and shares both on the day I wrote it and for several days later.

On January 10 of this year, I wrote another post entitled Where was your family member in 1880?  This post gave direction to finding a family member in the poor house records in Halifax. Again, lots of views and shares although not as many as the prior post.

I decided to do an experiment of sorts; instead of writing about the poor of 100+ years ago, I decided to write a post about the poor of today; of January 2020. The views and shares were way down…down below 30 views and no shares. How interesting.

What does that say about people who are interested in poverty? Are we only interested in the barbarism of poverty 100 or more years ago? Is this because we do not have deal with them? They are not on our doorsteps any longer? And why are we not interested in the current barbarism of poverty? Is it because we DO have to deal with them? Because they are on our doorsteps? Are we blaming them for their poverty?

Why would a post about current poverty not even touch the views and shares of those in historic poverty. As a sociologist, I find this very interesting. As an anti poverty activist, I find this very sad.

The blog stats for my most recent blog posts. The post highlighted in red is about current poverty. As you can see, very few people looked at it the day it was posted or the few days afterwards as opposed to the blogs about historic poverty. 

Present Day Poverty: Books & Articles

220px-Hand_to_Mouth_-_Living_in_Bootstrap_America_(book_cover)Last week documentary film maker and my friend Tim Wilson sent me a message and a link to the book Hand to Mouth: Living Bootstrap in America  by Linda Tirado.  I would love to read the book but I do not have the money to purchase it yet. I like to buy from the author’s website to give the author as much of the cost of the book as possible.

Linda Tirado had originally written an online response to a question in a forum, “Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?” I remember reading it in 2014/15. Her answer was extremely insightful and hit the nail on the head so accurately it brought tears to my eyes. Her answer was posted by the Guardian Newspaper, amongst others and was entitled Poor People Don’t Plan Long Term; We’ll Just Get Our Hearts Broken

Now she has released her book “Hand to Mouth; Living in Bootstrap America” and I look forward to reading it. While scrolling Facebook this morning, I saw that one of my friends had posted an excerpt from her book. The piece is Why Poor People Stay Poor. Again, it is so true that it makes me tear up. I had been there; my parents had been there; my friends had been there and some of them are still there.

My parents managed our poverty by denying themselves every luxury, working at grinding jobs that ruined their long term health and taking advantage of any extra money that came along – usually in the form of overtime work. They helped me to purchase my home several years ago which eventually led to me being able to manage my own poverty. Neither of us is rich or even middle class; but we’ve learned to live in poverty. There are levels to poverty, believe it or not, and now we live in one of the upper levels of poverty. We both have a small cushion of cash just in case our car breaks down, we need emergency medicine, and such.

We look at the history of poor houses and we think about how terrible it was and how we treated poor people ‘back then’. I have even seen responses to my history of poor houses in Nova Scotia with the quotes such as “Thank heavens it is much better now.” I was so outraged at those comments that I wrote a chapter about it in my book “A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia”.  It is NOT so much better now and we STILL treat poor people abysmally simply because they are poor. Tirado wrote in this article

“Because our lives seem so unstable, poor people are often seen as being basically incompetent at managing their lives. That is, it’s assumed that we’re not unstable because we’re poor, we’re poor because we’re unstable. “

As Tirado wrote “It actually costs money to save money” 

“It is impossible to be good with money when you don’t have any. Full stop. If I’m saving my spare five bucks a week, in the best-case scenario I will have saved $260 a year. For those of you that think in quarters: $65 per quarter in savings. If you deny yourself even small luxuries, that’s the fortune you’ll amass. Of course you will never manage to actually save it; you’ll get sick at least one day and miss work and dip into it for rent. Gas will spike and you’ll need it to get to work. You’ll get a tear in your work pants that you can’t patch. Something, I guarantee you, will happen in three months.”

Then my husband pointed out this article this morning…

Think Debtors Prisons Are a Thing of the Past? Not in Mississippi.

Yes, both my examples are American and we are Canadian. But it still happens here. Our smaller population, spread out over much bigger physical area means we don’t see it as often, do not hear about it as often. If it is happening in the United States, it can and does happen here. We are not that far away from them physically or culturally.

Modern day poor houses are in the form of sub standard housing, no housing, or living in your tent in the woods…as often happens here in rural Nova Scotia. A inconvenience to someone with money can be life changing to someone without money.

Often, when doing presentations about poor houses in Nova Scotia, I end my presentation with the sentence “If we don’t change the way we treat poor people today, someone, someday, maybe 50, 100 or 200 years from now will be writing a book about how badly we treated poor people in our time when we had the means and opportunities to do better. They will be talking about how ‘barbaric’ we were. And they’ll be right.”

We can do better.

Where was your family member in 1880?

A partial list of names of those who spent time in the Halifax Poor House in the Year 1880


Happy New Year! Happy 2020!

I was doing more research on poor houses in Nova Scotia the other day, digging deeper, finding names, finding stories when it occurred to me (wake up Brenda!!) that I should be sharing some of this research on here.

The first document I want to share comes from deep within the Nova Scotia Legislature website and is from 1880.  There are a number of these reports in this website and when I was researching for the book A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia, I came across these reports which were invaluable. You can find any number of these reports on THIS site.

The Report of the Commissioners of Public Charities for the Year 1880 contains a great deal of names of the ‘inmates’ who spent time at the Halifax Poor House in 1880. Many of the names are from all over Nova Scotia, Canada, the United States and other parts of the world.

Are you searching for your family history and have hit a wall? Your ancestor might have spent some time in this poor house. By 1880, this would have been the third and last poor house in Halifax. This poor house was newer and was located on the corners of Robie and South Streets where the IWK Children’s Hospital is currently located.

There are hundreds if not thousands of names in here and this is just one year. Start exploring and see if you can find who you are looking for. They may have stayed just one night at the Poor House or they may have stayed for the rest of their lives.  However long the ‘inmate’ stayed, just take a moment to appreciate what they would have been through, how they would have been treated, what brought them here. The ‘inmate’ was more than just a name. Think of that as you peruse through the report.